People continue to protest over the presidential election as they march to the Stella Square in the capital Minsk, Belarus on August 30, 2020. Photo: Marina Serebryakova / Anadolu Agency/AFP

YEREVAN — Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, faced with mass protests following a rigged election, has now overseen the brazen abduction and deportation of his political rivals to Ukraine – a move placing Minsk firmly in the Russian orbit and his regime fully reliant on Moscow for survival.

Early on Tuesday, three opposition leaders resurfaced in neighboring Ukraine after their brazen abduction from central Minsk by security forces the previous day. Anton Randyonkau and Ivan Krautsou, leading members of Belarus’ opposition Coordination Council, were driven to the border with Ukraine and forcibly sent across.

The third detainee, Maryya Kalesnikava, successfully resisted the forced deportation by reportedly ripping up her passport, but remains in custody.

As dramatic and desperate as the move was, it more significantly demonstrates that no negotiations are now possible between the Lukashenko regime and the opposition Coordination Council.

And by ruling out any consideration of concession or compromise, President Lukashenko has only further limited his options in the escalating crisis since a national awakening and protest movement over his fraudulent August 9 re-election.

The move to remove any emerging leadership of the opposition is also too little, too late for the regime. The now-national civic protest movement in Belarus appears to have only capitalized on the innovation and flexibility of a campaign that does not rely on any one individual or leader.

That stands in stark contrast to the Lukashenko regime, which is far too dependent on the fate and future of the president alone. This is a key difference that risks breeding fear and trepidation within the security services, which stand alone as the sole source for power of the regime.

In this battle of wills, neither side is backing down, with Belarus now past the tipping point. For Russia, as the only external actor that matters, the situation is no longer a threat. Rather, Belarus now stands as an opportunity.

Members of the US Army 2nd Brigade 69th Regiment 2nd Battalion at Mockava railway station in Lithuania, on September 5, 2020. Several hundred US troops started arriving in NATO member Lithuania on Saturday for military exercises near the border with Belarus. Photo: AFP/Petras Malukas

A pliant president

The isolation and marginalization of Lukashenko as a leader only makes him more pliable and pliant for Moscow. No longer able to resist Russian demands and much less capable of resolving this crisis, Lukashenko’s survival has a transaction cost – the demise of independence and the demarcation of sovereignty.

The United States last week sent several hundred troops for NATO exercises in Lithuania, near the border with Belarus, but the Trump administration has shown little interest in the ongoing stand-off.

Beyond the words of support from the West, the lack of any effective action will only trigger a sense of betrayal among the protesters. In this context, the loss of any and all legitimacy of the regime from the actions of the Belarusian state will be matched by a comparable loss of credibility due to the inaction of the Western states.

Against that backdrop, Belarus will be an attractive arena for Russia, offering an opportunity for the projection of Russian power and influence over an increasingly weakened Belarus as a supplicant state.     

For President Lukashenko, the next chapter of this drama will center on Moscow, as he is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming days.

As a long-coveted prize for Moscow, the price for Minsk will be submission and surrender to Russian plans for greater “integration” or the final consolidation of a planned “union” between Belarus and Russia.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, right, elevates Bishop of Minsk and Zaslavl Benjamin to the diaconate at the Christ The Saviour Cathedral in downtown Moscow on September 6, 2020. Photo: AFP/Sergey Pyatakov/Sputnik

Survival for Statehood

This trade-off between Lukashenko’s sole objective of sustaining power and surrendering statehood is a heavy and exacting price, but in light of the reality, this transaction is the only way Lukashenko can survive, both personally and politically, for the coming weeks and months.

There is little that any other external actor can do. It is Moscow, and only Moscow, that can play a decisive, or divisive, role in Minsk.

And it is only the Belarusian opposition that can exact change.

As opposition leader and former election rival Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has shown, leadership is essential for inspiration, which she can continue to carry out from her exile in Lithuania.

Her advantage is that the protests are decentralized, with no vulnerable center of gravity for the security forces to confront or contain. And in another stark contrast to the beleaguered Lukashenko regime, there is little to motivate the few remaining Lukashenko loyalists but fear.

From this perspective, the protest movement against Lukashenko neither needs nor necessitates top-down leadership. For the immediate objective of forcing the removal of the regime, the opposition is endowed with a legitimacy from the street, demonstrated through a potent combination of people power and a sense of civic empowerment.

This is especially crucial as a show for force and determination that is no longer fearful or scared, meaning that the protesters have seized the initiative and hold the momentum.

Also read: Belarus poll gives Putin a choice of nightmares